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109th Airlift Wing team builds ski landing area in Arctic

By Staff Sgt. Jamie Spaulding | 109th Airlift Wing | July 29, 2020

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. – "Creatio Ex Nihilo" or "Something from Nothing" is the motto of the 109th Airlift Wing's expeditionary ski-way team of Airmen from various units throughout the wing who are blazing trail forward in the realm of operational capabilities in the Arctic.

Their mission is to deploy to remote environments and establish what the members call a "ski landing area" or skiway; an area of snowy or icy terrain improved for landing the unit's ski-equipped aircraft, the LC-130.

The LC-130 is a version of the venerable four-engine C-130 Hercules turboprop that has been in service since the 1950s but is designed with skies and wheels so it can land on snow ice or a runway.

The LC-130s flown by the 109th are the Department of Defense's only ski-equipped transport and contingency aircraft and play a critical role in supporting missions in the Arctic, according to the Department of the Air Force's new Arctic Strategy document released on July 21.

Based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, New York near Schenectady, the wing provides airlift to bases in the Antarctic and Arctic regions. They usually fly missions in Antarctica when it is winter in New York and fly to Greenland when it is summer in the northern hemisphere.

We know how important this program is. No one else does, but we do, "said Major Brandon Caldwell, a pilot with the wing and a senior leader on the ski-way team.

"We've been at this for years and researched, developed, and created this capability pretty much on our own. As the Arctic is beginning to become a strategic region again, people are beginning to take notice of what we do up here every year," Caldwell said.

The skiway construction mission brings a polar expeditionary capability to combatant commanders and search and rescue responders, Caldwell explained. This valuable capability allows heavy airlift into increasingly critical and notoriously difficult to access areas around the globe.

The 109th began developing the capability to build a runway on snow or ice 20 years ago, said Lt. Col. Matthew Sala, a pilot with the wing and a senior leader on the skiway team.

But in that twenty years, a lot has changed in how the 109th operates, Sala said. Both the mission itself or the tactics and equipment used to accomplish that mission have improved.

"Our equipment has become far more advanced merely because so much time has passed," Sala said.

"With that advancement comes the ability to expand the mission to serve more organizations and agencies and offer them more bang for the buck. The advent of the eight bladed prop engines has expanded capabilities so much that we're practically a different unit," he added.

The 8-bladed propeller engines are a recent upgrade to the aircraft. They provide more thrust and enable the LC-130s to get off the ground in areas where they may not have had the ability before.

With an increasing international interest in the Arctic and Antarctic, the ability of the 109th to execute heavy airlift missions is becoming more valuable every day, according to the new Air Force strategy document.

Planning for a ski landing construction mission is an 8-12 week process and is extremely in-depth and detail-oriented.

When the team is assigned their area of responsibility, the work begins. They must scour the area of ice for the right conditions, which represent the highest likelihood of successful ski-way construction, Sala said.

The 109th's Polar Tactics Office will use satellite imagery and historical ice analysis to identify several possible skiway sites. At the same time, leaders navigate the bureaucracy involved with operating in foreign countries, and with foreign nationals or military agencies participating in the mission.

"We are going to places where there will be limited to no support, so we can't forget or overlook any detail," Caldwell said. "In addition to the administrative planning, we also have a logistical mountain to climb with each mission."

The teams usually are "put in" by small Canadian Twin Otter ski-equipped aircraft that do not have a large Available Cargo Load (ACL).

The plan for the movement of cargo and personnel is carefully projected in detailed spreadsheets. Every item is cataloged and weighed for efficient and expeditious deployment to the area of operations.

Before the team leaves the base outside Schenectady, they build up to six pallets worth of supplies and equipment. This gear has to be broken down, reorganized, and prioritized for deployment to the field.

Given the inability of heavy aircraft to land on unimproved terrain, the personnel and equipment are sent out in small groups, organized so that the camp can be built gradually as more people and supplies arrive throughout the day.

"The limitations of the environment are represented in every step of the process," Sala said.

"The reason it is done this way is, on the day of deployment, we are moving people into an austere environment with zero support outside of what is slated to be deployed to the site. If mistakes are made and cargo doesn't make it out as planned, our people are in the elements and in danger," he explained.

Once everyone and everything is on-site, the camp springs up in a matter of hours: specialized shelters are heated by kerosene stoves, a headquarters tent for cooking and communications, and separate locations for cold or warm storage, and restrooms.

The camp is a machine in need of constant tending and attention to operate correctly in support of the mission.

"Out at camp, the name of the game is survival," Caldwell explained.

"Everyone has a job, whether it be refilling fuel cans for heaters and snowmobiles or preparing meals. Safety and survival are paramount."

With camp established, the mission gets underway as the team begins the work of staking out the landing area. The landing area is a swath of ice a minimum of 150 ft wide and 5000 feet long, free of packs of snow, pressure ridges, cracks or crevices, and any other surface irregularities.

A ski landing control officer, known as the SLACO, takes charge. He or she is generally an experienced instructor pilot trained to survey snow surfaces and determine the safest way to utilize the LC-130 at the given location.

Before deployment, the SLACO will have performed in-person surveillance of a location.

He measures snow and ice thickness, surveys the site for any irregularities, and examines the larger area for anything that could be a challenge or endanger an LC or the LC crew.

The SLACO will then layout the ski-way, deciding it's exact location, orientation, and markings. The SLACO deploys canvas markers to illustrate the outline of the ski-way to the grooming personnel on the ground and outline it for the aircrews that will come into land.

"The actual improvement or grooming of the ski way can take anywhere from three days to three weeks, depending upon weather conditions and any number of things that can go wrong in these kinds of environments," Caldwell said.

Members of the construction team take shifts operating grooming equipment, towed by snowmobiles, designed to improve snow and ice conditions to support the landing of the LC-130 safely.

"Given the conditions, we're working in, temperatures up to seventy degrees below zero, shifts never exceed two hours." Said Tech Sgt. Logan Brennan, a loadmaster with the wing.

"The guys will switch out every now and then to fill 8 to 10 hours of grooming per day, ideally," Caldwell said

A typical operation or exercise of this capability concludes with an initial landing of the LC-130 on a finished ski landing area, followed by several subsequent landings to resupply the camp. Eventually, the camp is broken down and the ski-way construction team pulls out.

"The most rewarding part is the first LC landing," said Caldwell.

"You pour your blood, sweat, and the feeling in your cheeks, fingers and toes into building this ski-way from choosing the location to initial flagging to the first, passes on the groomer.

When you then see the first LC overhead and know it's your friends and coworkers on board, and they land for the first time, it's very rewarding," he said.

The 109th Airlift Wing's Expeditionary Ski-Way Team participates in domestic and foreign joint exercises, demonstrating its capabilities worldwide in various Arctic and Antarctic environments.